Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah is such a feast for the eyes that more than a million people from around the world visit every year.
Located on the eastern rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the park features natural amphitheaters all filled with a colorful landscape of natural spires, pinnacles and pillars called hoodoos.
Hoodoos are multi-colored limestone formations which are still works in progress. They are formed primarily by erosion during the 200 freeze-thaw cycles each year. On sunny winter afternoons the snow and ice melt into the joints of the limestone. When the melt water refreezes, typically that very night, it expands. Repeated enough times, this will crack the rock and cause it to crumble over centuries.
Rain also helps to weather the formations. Runoff follows small gullies, gradually deepening them to leave narrow “fins” of rock between. Weak spots in the fins eventually become holes or windows. When the tops of these holes collapse, then a free-standing column remains, which is a new hoodoo.
Because of the high elevation in the park, ranging from 6,620 feet at Yellow Creek to 9,115 feet at Rainbow Point, daily temperatures in summer very rarely reach even the 90s. Night temperatures dip into the 40s. These conditions make for ideal hiking, and there are plenty of choices depending on your physical abilities.
One of the favorite hikes in the park is the 1.3 mile Navajo Loop Trail. It’s moderately strenuous, but it takes you down among the hoodoos. This hike begins at Sunset Point and travels down into a slot canyon below the rim. For those with a bit more time and energy I recommend the Fairyland Loop Trail, which travels for about eight miles total and features stunning formations along the entire route, including China Wall and Tower Bridge.
If hiking isn’t your thing, just driving the 18-mile scenic drive is worth a visit here; there are 14 viewpoints where you can stop for a lingering look. The best way to enjoy the scenic drive is to proceed non-stop to the end at Rainbow Point, then stop at the viewpoints as you return. On your return they’re all on the right side of the road.
Since there is very little stray light in the park, on a clear, moonless night, visitors can see more than 7,000 stars. Astronomy programs take place through the fall, typically featuring a one-hour multimedia presentation followed by 90 minutes at the telescope stations. From now through September the programs take place Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings. In July they start at 9 p.m. (There will be no program on Saturday, July 25 because of the Geology Festival.) In August they start at 8:30 p.m. and in September at 8 p.m. In October they move to 7:30 p.m., and Tuesday and Saturday only.
There are two campgrounds in the park, North and Sunset. Both offer restrooms, picnic tables and drinking water. North Campground has 13 RV sites available by reservation, and 86 RV and tent sites on a first-come, first-served basis. Sunset has 20 tent sites and one group site available by reservation; another 80 RV and tent sites are first come, first served. For reservations go to www.recreation.gov/. There are many privately operated campgrounds in the immediate vicinity including at Ruby’s Inn, located just outside the park boundary.
The Bryce Canyon Visitor Center is open in summer daily 8 a.m.to 8 p.m. For more information on the park and summer programs call 435-834-5322. www.nps.gov/brca/
Deborah Wall is the author of “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States,” “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide,” and co-author of “Access For All, Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.